Cross Purposes on the Way
This sermon, given by Gary Heard (Dean of the Theological School & Lecturer in Pastoral and Ministry Studies, Whitley College) at ABC on 4 September 2016, is the eighth in a series entitled, ‘People of the Way’. Please note that this is a full but not a complete transcript.
Scripture Readings: Luke 14:25-33; Psalm 139
Introduction – Text and Context
ILLN – Today I find myself in an interesting situation. It is Father’s Day and the first words of the text read “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father…”
Preaching on a text like this on Father’s Day may well be the equivalent of being asked to shoot Bambi! At least Matthew’s Gospel seeks to soften it a little (“anyone who loves his father or mother more than me…”) though you have to ignore the previous three verses if you want to avoid the same conflict.
ILLN – But today is a different day for me also, as it is the first Father’s Day since my Father died. I know that I am not alone in finding Father’s Day difficult today, though the reasons will vary greatly.
APPLICN – Perhaps the words of Jesus, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple,” which at the time struck a blow at the very heart of a system in which honouring parents above all was perhaps the greatest social responsibility, may be heard differently today, underscoring for many people that you don’t have to have the perfect family to be a follower of Jesus. In an era where family breakdown is widespread, Jesus’ first words here may well provide release from a system which places pressure on families to “look good...” an opening to be real.
APPLY – While we honour fathers on a day like today, we need to be mindful of those for whom a day such as this rekindles grief, or serves as a reminder of a father they never knew. A good family is a wonderful gift, but neither the church nor the community of Jesus requires us to come from a good family situation, or pretend that we do. However…
ILLN – It’s been nearly three centuries since the time when John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich had such a fondness for playing cribbage that he couldn’t bear the thought of stopping to eat with a fork or getting the cards greasy from eating meat, so ordered his valet to bring him meat tucked between two pieces of bread. It wasn’t long before others began to order "the same as Sandwich!" I would suggest that we all have our preferred way of constructing a sandwich. I’m more than partial to a good salad sandwich, particularly on a hot day. There are two things which define a sandwich: the filling and the bread. If one or the other isn’t according to our taste, we aren’t satisfied.
APPLICN – I’d invite you to look at today’s passage in the same way you would look at a sandwich. On the outside we have two very hard sayings: a thick, toasted, dry, crunchy multigrain the kind that occasionally feels like biting into a piece of grit. The first layer begins with the message about hating family members and culminates in the saying: “whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” The end layer is blunt: A piece of bread like a door-stop: “In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.”
APPLY – I’d suggest that when interpreting this passage, most of us turn to the middle – the filling, and focus there, because it is familiar territory to us. This is familiar and comfortable territory for us. The land of negotiation, where we use our intellect, our skills, our business-savvy to negotiate the way forward. Is this a good business deal, or not?
Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’
“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.
We KNOW how to operate in this space. Jesus is our man here!
But… we have to throw away the bread in order to digest this sandwich.
ILLN – You may remember the Occupy Movement against social inequality and lack of "real democracy" around the world which began in 2011. It was trying to institute this change against the background of a chant, “We are the 99%” attacking the concentration of wealth in the world in the top 1% of income earners. In fact, the concentration is much higher. In January this year, Oxfam reported that 62 people owned half of the wealth in the world. That’s less than a full Melbourne tram. When we read such statistics, we think of ourselves as the ones who are missing out.
APPLICN – According to the web site globalrichlist.com, anyone who earns more than $AUD50,000 a year is in the world’s top 1% of income earners. That’s confronting to me. Owning the average house in Melbourne likely puts us in the same category of wealth owners.
APPLY – So, when Jesus concludes by saying, “In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples…” we know we have a lot to lose.
APPLY – It’s much easier to stick with the filling in this sandwich – the story about counting the cost before you begin in order to be able to complete the task, and to ignore the comments about family and giving everything up.
Now that I’ve shot Bambi… I want to underscore that this is not an easy saying. How do we live as faithful followers of Jesus in the light of this call? The only ones who Jesus targets more directly are the professional religious people, so I know where that leaves me. There are those who have taken this call literally and lived the life of poverty. We have taken comfort in the middle of this passage about good stewardship.
APPLICN – William Willimon puts it starkly: The needs of the world are too great, the suffering and pain too extensive, the lures of the world too seductive for us to begin to change the world unless we are changed, unless conversion of life and morals becomes our pattern. The status quo is too alluring. It is the air we breathe, the food we eat, the six-thirty news, our institutions, theologies, and politics. The only way we shall break its hold on us is to be transferred to another dominion, to be cut loose from our old certainties, to be thrust under the flood and then pulled forth fresh and newborn. Baptism takes us there.
APPLY – I am not going to walk away from the fact that this is a hard saying. It is demanding of us. And perhaps we are meant to live with the discomfort it brings. I wrestle with it regularly. It is one of those passages we need to keep coming back to.
So, there are two things to carry alongside these words of Jesus. The first comes in a reminiscence from Dorothy Day:
Here is a letter we received today: “I took a gentleman seemingly in need of spiritual and temporal guidance into my home on a Sunday afternoon. I let him have a nap on my bed, went through the want ads with him, made coffee and sandwiches for him, and when he left, I found my wallet had gone also.” I can only say that the saints would only bow their heads, and not try to understand or judge.…These things happened for our testing. We are sowing the seed of love, and we are not living in the harvest time. We must love to the point of folly, and we are indeed fools, as our Lord himself was who died for such a one as this.…It is agony to go through such bitter experiences, because we all want to love, we desire with a great longing to love our fellow human beings, and our hearts are often crushed at such rejections. But, as a Carmelite nun said to me last week, “It is the crushed heart which is the soft heart, the tender heart.”
The second comes from the Old Testament passage read to us earlier, which is a beautiful reminder that God knows us inside out, that we are formed under his watchful gaze, and that our heart is known in all things. It ends with the prayer: Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. Psalm 139:23-24 As we contemplate this call of Jesus to give up everything, a call which Jesus himself lived out, let this be our prayer and guide us into meaningful action.